Article by Herb Rubenstein, Executive Director, Brooklyn Golf Alliance
Sergio Garcia had the talent and skill to win the Masters, or any major championship for that matter, since he turned pro in 1999. In that year, he won the Irish Open and finished second to Tiger Woods by one stroke in the PGA Championship. He finally won a major championship nearly twenty years later, in 2017. What was different this year?
I watched Sergio Garcia on TV make a triple bogey at the BMW Championship in 2014 that led commentators to write, “Sergio Garcia proved again why he's his own worst enemy on Sunday.” You can read about this and watch the pivotal, terrible chip shot leading to the triple bogey that Garcia made after twenty consecutive holes without a bogey, to ruin his chances of winning the BMW Championship. See: http://www.golf.com/tour-and-news/sergio-garcia-makes-triple-bogey-8-17th-hole-fall-out-contention-bmw-championship
While everyone focuses on the terrible chip shot, the hole was ruined by Garcia well before he hit that dreadful shot. Garcia hit a perfect tee shot in the middle of the fairway. He had the distance to “get home” in two, and he was two strokes back with two holes to play. We know he could reach the green because Sergio was one of the few players in the history of the Masters to score a double eagle, an “albatross”(although it was in a practice round) with a 325 yard drive and 253 yard two iron at Augusta’s number two in 2002.
In 2014, as Sergio walked up to his perfect drive on seventen at the BMW Championship on that Sunday, he knew water guarded the front of the green. Even though he was two strokes back, and Sergio could reach the green, Sergio inexplicably “laid up” and played short of the green to 83 yards.
However, right after he hit a perfect lay up, you could see him looking towards his caddie while walking arguing out loud either with himself or his caddie. Watching him on TV show his anger and disgust at his decision to lay up, suggested to me that Sergio was not mentally prepared to be a true champion at the highest level in 2014.
Maybe as he walked toward the green, he realized there was not as much wind in his face as he thought when he made the decision to lay up. Maybe he realized after walking off some of the shot he had just hit that he could have reached the par five seventeenth in 2014 pretty easily with a good second shot, and possibly made birdie or even eagle (as he did at fifteen at Augusta to help him win the Masters). An eagle would have tied him for the lead at the BMW with one hole to play.
When Sergio got to his 83 yard approach shot to the seventeenth green at the BMW Championship, everything looked fine - his set up, his pre-shot routine, and even his swing. But, the ball flew over the green. Now, he has to chip back onto the green sloping away from him and toward the water in front of the green. And he is hitting his fourth shot.
He knew at that moment that he had lost this tournament, unless he chipped it in. So, now I am sure that he was still mad at the lay-up shot and this mental “mistake” led him to hit the 83 yard wedge harder than he intended, and fly it over the green, when the pin position was in the front part of the green.
As he prepared to hit his chip shot from behind the green, and was standing over it, I am sure he was still reeling from what I call “stupidity squared” (for those mathematically inclined, and “aggravated stupidity” for the rest of us). He was still mad about the lay-up shot. He was still mad about missing the huge green with an easy 83 yard wedge shot that you or I or any single digit handicapper would hit nine out of ten times, and get close to the pin two or three times out of ten.
What Sergio did on the chip showed the awful influence of thinking about your last shot, or even the shot before your last shot, while attempting your next shot. To make matters worse for Sergio, he probably was thinking he needed to make the chip for birdie so he would only be one behind the leader. This thought, focusing on the result of the shot rather than the actual technique of making of the shot, and the demands of the shot, represents stupid mistake, and put a lot of extra pressure on Sergio to get the chip shot to the hole and certainly not leave it short. (How often do we hit a downhill putt ten feet past the hole because of this thought – “I have to make this” and we miss the putt coming back, compounding our misery).
The commentators said before he hit the chip shot, that it was an easy shot, with a nice, uphill lie and plenty of green to work with. Sure, the green was running downhill away from him toward the pin and the water behind the pin. But, no big deal, unless you are mentally fried at that point, which Sergio was.
And what did Sergio do with the chip shot? He mishits (blades it) it past the pin, right into the water. Triple bogey caused by stupidity “squared.” Johnny Miller, in a typical back handed compliment, said live on TV right after seeing the ball go in the water “He wouldn’t hit that water if you gave him 1,000 balls.”
It’s Different This Year At the Masters
On Sunday, at Augusta, in the 2017 Masters, Sergio was two down to Justin Rose on thirteen tee due to bogeys at ten and eleven. Thirteen is a par five, dogleg left. Justin Rose had the honors and hit a perfect drive in the fairway and put himself in the right place for a good chance at a birdie. Sergio came to the tee having hit at least two previous drives right (on five and ten) and pulled this one left, over a creek, and into the trees.
It looked like his chances to win the Masters were over, and one had to wonder at that moment if he was thinking about the previous drives he had hit right that caused him to hit this drive left. We will never know, but I doubt when he hit his tee shot on thirteen he was thinking about previous shots in a way that led him to pull his tee shot left.
He found the ball over the creek, and had an unplayable lie (and was lucky to get the opportunity to take this one stroke penalty and be in position to hit his next shot well up in the fairway near the green). Then, from the fairway for his fourth shot, he hits] a great wedge and made the putt for par.
Justin Rose made a par as well, and Sergio instead of going four down, which is what nearly everyone watching expected after seeing their tee shots, was still only two down with five holes to play. This was a huge momentum shift in the tournament, all in Sergio’s favor.
Building on the momentum from his halve with Rose on thirteen, Sergio went on to make history with a birdie on fourteen, then an eagle on fifteen, and hit a nearly perfect shot close on the par three sixteen, missing a short putt there for birdie and fell one stroke behind Rose as Rose birdied sixteen.
Sergio then hit great shots on seventeen and eighteen, parring both of them, and got into a playoff. Garcia just missed a very short putt to win in regulation that “broke the wrong way”. Then Sergio won handily in the playoff on the first hole (number eighteen again) that he birdied and Rose bogeyed.
Here is what was different in the Sergio of 2017 from the Sergio of 2014. At the BMW Championship, Sergio was second guessing himself, making himself upset at the shot he just hit and the strategy decision he had just made, and it destroyed him. He did not do this at the Masters.
After the Masters, when asked about his poor tee shot on thirteen that led to a lucky unplayable lie and a great recovery for a par, he said that the tee shot was not a real bad shot, that it did not fade as much as he wanted, and “just caught the tree.” He was clearly at peace with errant tee on the thirteenth after the tournament, and I am sure he was at peace with the shot just after he hit it, and when he found his ball in an unplayable situation.
So, it was clear from watching him play perfectly after that errant tee shot on thirteen on Sunday at the Masters in 2017, that he was never mad about or ever “second guessed” that errant tee shot. Walking up to the ball in the woods, you could see that Sergio was still proud of himself and the shot he hit. Most importantly, he was still optimistic, looking forward to the next shot, and mentally ready for the next shot and his “mano a mano” duel with Justin Rose going down the stretch.
In fact, Sergio was mentally ready for every shot he hit on the last five holes at Augusta on Sunday. He said he hit the “best 8 iron of his life” on fifteen leading to an eagle, and he certainly hit one of the best approach shots he has ever hit on the first playoff hole (number eighteen) which ended up to 12 feet behind the hole.
From the moment Sergio hit his bad tee shot on thirteen, he played perfectly, except not playing enough break on a short birdie putt on sixteen, after Rose had made birdie by sinking an easier putt from “under the hole” putting uphill.
Sergio Garcia grew up, matured, and became a champion golf sometime between the BMW Championship in 2014 and his Masters’ victory in 2017. His calmness, his ability to accept a poor tee shot on thirteen, and not hold it against himself, his ability to continue to play brilliant golf in the face of adversity, led him to win the Masters. In 2014, he could not have done this, period. In 2014, he had the skill, and the talent, but not the mental toughness, nor the right the mental attitude, necessary to become a champion in a major golf tournament.
The good news is that this is a lesson for every golfer, everywhere, every day. It is a lesson that we golfers learn, forget, and have to learn again and again. I have forgotten this lesson as often as I have learned it.
Once I was playing in Florida on a course I had never played before, with two pros, a father and son. I rode in the cart with the father. I hit my tee shot on the first hole 280 yards right down the middle with a beautiful, little draw. I felt great.
We drove up to the ball, which I thought would be five yards left of center in the fairway with 140 yards to the green. But, Nicklaus had “crowned” the fairway at about 275 yards, and my tee shot rolled a few inches off the fairway to the left due to the “crown” in the fairway. Unfortunately, there was an overhanging limb of a tree about 20 yards in front of me and water in front of the green and to the right of the green. Immediately, I knew I had to lay up. (If I weren’t playing with two pros, I might have tried to skip my ball through the water!)
I said to my playing partner, the pro, “I can’t believe my ball ended up behind this tree.” And the pro, the father looked sternly at me and said, “We are not going to talk about shots we have already hit, are we?” I looked at him and said, “That is why you are a successful pro, isn’t it? You don’t talk about shots you have already hit.” And he said, “That is one of the reasons.” I had known this pro for eight minutes, and he had already changed my life as a golfer.
Since then, I have (almost) never uttered a word about a shot I already hit during a round of golf and pledge never do it again either. I will talk about shots I hit when I get to the clubhouse after the round or even after that. After a round, I will analyze all of my bad shots in an attempt to learn from them, but while I am still playing a round of golf, the nanosecond the shot is over, it is over, and I don’t think about it, talk about it, or let it back into my consciousness, except in the rare case when I can quickly figure out my mistake leading to the bad swing/shot, and then I pledge to correct the mistake and think nothing more of the bad shot or the bad strategy decision or bad read of a green I may make during a round.
That is the lesson Sergio learned from 2014 to 2017. That is the lesson the pro was teaching me on the first hole at that Florida golf course. At the BMW Championship in 2014, right after Sergio hit the lay-up shot, (which he hit perfectly to 83 yards, he angrily talked about it, and then proceeded to make a triple bogey to fall out of contention in this important tournament.
At Augusta, on thirteen on Sunday, Sergio stayed focus on the task at hand after his bad tee shot. He did not talk about the bad shot, or even think about it as he was walking to find his ball and strike the next shot. He was focused on the task at hand. And, we all know the only task at hand in golf, is the next shot, and never the previous shot.
Congratulations to Sergio and to everyone who learns this important lesson about golf and about life. Learning this lesson might not lead you to a championship, but it will help you make fewer triple bogeys in golf and in life.
About the Author
Herb Rubenstein is the Executive Director of the Brooklyn Golf Alliance, and a member of Forsgate Country Club in New Jersey. He is the author of numerous books and articles on leadership, and teaches business strategy and related business courses at the University of Colorado Denver. He is a public speaker and regular webinar leader on topics including leadership, ethics, personal and organizational effectiveness, and the future of golf. He is currently writing a golf instruction book with PGA pro Peter Gyscek, the golf coach at Washington and Lee University (W&L).
He was Captain of the W&L golf team in 1974. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and he can be reached at (303) 910-7961. He still plays tournament golf and works to expand the game of golf.